Liberating languor

Over breakfast with New York Times reporter Susan Dominus, Chancellor Joel Klein waxed enthusiastic over the recent book of Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of Education. According to Klein, this book shows how, “through distance learning and other individualized teaching approaches, we may be able to reduce the need in the future for teachers’ overall numbers and increase their pay.”

One might use online courses to supplement existing curricula. But it’s hard to see how they could replace teachers. What would count as an absence, and what would be done about chronic absences? How many students would drop out of contact and slip through the cracks? What would keep children from “learning” on the sofa with the TV on?

Nor would it be fair to use distance learning for the top students. They, too, need teachers in their daily lives. Intellectual advancement and self-sufficiency are not one and the same. Moreover, young people spend so much time online with their peers that they need a counterbalance: adults they must face, places where they must be.

There is no getting around it. Teachers are needed.


  1. You know, every day when I go to the miserable filthy trailer in which my kids study, I think about Chancellor Klein pontificating about the latest online stuff that we have never had. So at least there’s no danger of my students wasting time with the internet or any of that nonsense. I adore it when the Chancellor waxes enthusiastic about such things, loads my school to 250% capacity, and then shares his worldview with the media, which hasn’t the remotest notion what goes on under his watch.

  2. How many students “slip through the cracks” now? As far as “learning” on the sofa with the TV on, isn’t that where most kids have done their homework for decades? How much class time is spent on the topic being studied and how much is sent home to be read and studied through other assignments? Teachers don’t hold the hands of every single student in their classroom – that would be impossibile. “Top students” could be encouraged to find adults who work in their field of interest to interact with. Teachers aren’t the only ones who mentor students – sometimes they only see a student for 45 or 50 minutes per day. In fact, very few teachers, in my experience, want to be a mentor at all, much less be a mentor to all of their students. Who has the time to mentor 20 or more students?

    “Intellectual advancement and self-sufficiency are not one and the same.” Children are pretty self-sufficient at a very young age. As the child of divorced parents, I walked home with my door key around my neck, let myself and my younger sister in, had a previously prepared snack, did homework and a lot of times heated up dinner (without a microwave) before Mom got home from work. That began in the 1970s when I was in fourth grade. With the divorce rate being what it is, I would imagine a lot more kids live like we did.

    Just the mere presence of a teacher in a classroom does not guarantee academic success or the imparting of practical wisdom to a child with little adult supervision. If it did, students would perform much better than they do and we would have no problems with education.

    I don’t believe the article is saying that teachers are not needed at all. They’re saying that fewer teachers would be needed. School systems could pick from their best and brightest. They could pay them a lot more. Why should students in X school have a great science teacher and the students at Y school have a lousy who is a poor communicator? Besides, technology allows distance learners to engage in live classes and even ask questions. Like a classroom without the discipline issues, which is a huge problem in some schools.

    IMO, distance learning has been too slow in coming.

  3. “Teachers are needed.”

    Yeah, but are they needed in the same way, in the same institutional structure that they have served in the past? I don’t think so. This is especially true for the even modestly self-motivated. Do students really need to sit in a classroom 5 days per week, 180 days per year for academic purposes? Or, are we just warehousing them, providing daycare for busy parents, preventing crime?

    Homeschoolers successfully use all different variety of online and/or virtual classes. The Potters School, K12, and Calvert are all educational options that offer differing levels of teacher support.

    Here are two of my favorites:

    Accountability is of couse a huge issue and parents play the major role here. If parents are unable because of work obligations or ability to provide the necessary oversight then, perhaps, wearhousing is the appropriate response. But lets not kid ourselves in what we’re doing.

  4. Diana: “…it’s hard to see how (online curricula) could replace teachers. What would count as an absence, and what would be done about chronic absences?”

    School is a means, not an end in itself. If States replace compulsory attendance laws with compulsory education laws and use tests to assess “education”, they could reserve the expense of schools for students who need schools.

    Diana: “How many students would drop out of contact and slip through the cracks? What would keep children from ‘learning’ on the sofa with the TV on?”

    Standardized tests of reading comprehension and reading vocabulary (any language) and Math.

    Roland Meighan
    “Home-based Education Effectiveness Research and Some of its Implications”
    __Educational Review__, Vol. 47, No.3, 1995, p.281
    “So-called ‘school phobia’ is actually more likely to be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependancy is a largely unrecognized mental health problem.”

    It does not take 12 years at $12,000 per pupil-year to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State (government, generally) provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries).

    “…It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a clasroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking.”Quoted in Clive Harber, “Schooling as Violence”, p. 10, Educational Review, V. 54, #1.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    I am very intrigued by the possibilities offered by the introduction of technology into education. I think that we are currently seeing reform around the edges: online universities, home school options, use of online credit recovery and drop-out prevention.

    I am more with Stacy than with Klein with regard to teacher’s role. There may or may not be a need for fewer teachers. But, I anticipate that as more technological capabilities are developed the structure of school and the role of teachers may change dramatically. If education can be constructed in more specific modular forms, it is possibile that the current modularity (which we call grade levels) may pass away. Teachers may need to be more expert in determining the best WAY for individual students to learn in order to help construct more individualized programs constructed from interlocking components of various kinds. Certainly for technology to become a venue for education, teachers will have to be involved in development of hardware or software, or whatever kind of “thing” it takes.

    I don’t see kids sitting at home in competition with TV–but it may be that a single teacher in one location might work with students in several classrooms across a city or state connected technologically with a less qualified adult at each site. This already has the capability of meeting the need for specialized courses (languages, advanced math or science, etc) to serve small groups of students who are otherwise unable to access the material (not enough students to justify an appropriately credentialed teacher.

    I am very interested in the potential for technology to expand the connection between school and parents. Can you imagine if there was a You-Tube explanation of math homework? So many of us are afraid to jump in with our own explanations of things that might conflict with the teacher’s appoach–reviewing the presentation with your kid at homework time would be very helpful to both.

    The movies didn’t kill the live stage, although it had an impact–and ultimately developed in its own direction. TV hasn’t yet killed movies–and does things that cannot happen in a theater. It is not unusual for each new innovation to threaten the existing one–but frequently each develops in their own direction and co-exist (although I haven’t seen much use for typewriters anymore)

  6. I went to the third MACUL (Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning in, I believe, 1982. The promise of computers was bright and shiny coming on thirty years ago and to look at the reception the prospect of the use of computers in education is receiving today, the promise is still bright and shiny.

    Anyone care to venture a guess when the promise will be fulfilled?

    And if you’re that daring perhaps you could outline what that fulfilled promise will look like? More teachers or fewer? More administrators or fewer? Will what’s currently considered to be a high school education be what the average twelve year-old will be expected to accomplish?

  7. Computer technology can be useful in education, but only when it is applied intelligently. Too often, the focus is on getting the budget allocation and buying the hardware and software, rather than thinking intelligently about how it can be used.

    Here’s a story from another field which I think is very relevant here:

    In the early 1980s, GM CEO Roger Smith decided to make huge investments in automation, with the intent of greatly reducing labor costs and suppressing the threat from Japanese imports.

    At the same time, Toyota was focusing on the improvement of its production processes by thinking intelligently about every aspect of the workflow and encouraging creative employee involvement. Where an American company might use computerized optimization models to determine the best batch size for a stamping process, Toyota was developing fast-die-changeover teams to make batching less important.

    GM’s robots were not as reliable as hoped, and they added excessive rigidity to the production process. While the differing approaches to manufacturing were not the only facts in Toyota’s rise and GM’s defeat, they were important ones.

    (In fairness to Roger Smith–his scope of action was restricted by detailed union work rules, and it is not clear that he would have been allowed to pursue a Toyota-like manufacturing strategy even had he wanted to)

  8. “Can you imagine if there was a You-Tube explanation of math homework?”

    There is. Do a search on YouTube for just about any math topic. For instance:

    Equivalent Fractions –

    There are also videos on specific operations for algebra, trig, geometry.

    There are also web sites like and
    httpp:// that are quite helpful.

    I have used it myself. I wanted to know what the “lattice” method was to multiplication, and I found the answer on YouTube. My daughter wanted to know how to do “short” division, and she found it on YouTube.

    Kids should be doing more than going to social networking sites and playing games on the computer.

  9. Parent2 says:

    The degree of parental cheating possible with online courses would be staggering. At present, for-profit companies with every reason in the world to confirm the identities of their users can’t create a foolproof system–think of Facebook, Myspace, etc. I doubt that public education will be able to come up with a system to guarantee that Little Johnnie’s the person pushing the buttons on the home computer. Enough parents sign out their kids for shopping and sports events for my to doubt that online education will work on a large scale.

    Motivated students can learn from a book, at far less cost.

  10. Dick Eagleson says:

    Computers are certainly useful as tools for providing adjuncts to face-to-face teaching. Computer animations are often more useful than static printed images in getting across certain ideas in mathematics and the sciences, for example. But computers, thus employed, are simply more flexible and convenient forms of motion picture presentation and filmed presentations have been used in conventional classrooms for decades.

    The most useful role for computer technology in education is in streamlining and simplifying a lot of the “back office” parts of the education job. Quizzes and exams composed and administered on-line, for instance, eliminate a lot of the manual donkey work involved in grading and allow quicker feedback. Even for essay assignments or tests, allowing students use of a text editor eliminates the eyestrain and guesswork involved in interpreting 30-odd sets of idiosyncratic handwriting styles per class. When assignments are generated and graded on-line the results are also easily communicable to parents and guardians via e-mail or the provision of access to restricted websites. Posting all assignments on-line makes it easier for students to make up work missed during medical or other classroom absences too.

    None of this is exactly rocket science. Nonetheless, the teaching “profession” is the only significant category of white-collar employment left in America in which it is atypical for there to be a computer on the desk of its modal practitioner. Teachers, as a general rule, are the last of the technophobes in modern America. Many of them staunchly maintain their ignorance of what is, by now, already decades-old technology simply because they can, even if it would save them work to swing with the times.

  11. Is it really atypical for a teacher to have a computer on her desk? Where do you get that statistic? Teachers may not use computers well as a rule, but I think we all have one for things like attendance, posting grades and homework to the district website, etc.

    I’m slowly moving toward having students email me certain assignments. Using the comments feature is a quicker way for me to offer more feedback than hand writing it (plus my writing is getting more and more atrocious). I also like to be able to put student work up on the SmartBoard to demo things like sentence structure, thesis writing, etc. I’ve also used wiki spaces to very good effect.

    I think online classes are a good addition to the profession because they can expand opportunities for students, but having education go online exclusively would take away the very personal relationship between teacher and student that can be so intangibly valuable. Again, just because some is good, doesn’t mean all is better. It’s just one tool.

  12. Parent2 says:

    Computers are absolutely useful for the back office parts of the job–calculating and reporting grades, monitoring attendance, making it possible to file routine reports with the main office.

    In my experience, though, a school’s use of computers is only as effective as its leadership. One school uses computers to post assignments online. The teachers at this school reply to emails quickly, and set up face-to-face meetings as needed.

    The other school has funds set aside for technology. Every teacher has a computer, and classroom online pages have been a priority for six years. Compliance with online postings is spotty. Even those teachers who try to run an online website give up around late October. Emails are sometimes returned, but it varies by teacher. This second school spends far more money on technology than the first.

    In short, computers could be useful tools, but only if school administrations and the teachers agree that they’re useful, and put in the time to master the tools. The costs involved are staggering, though. As a parent, I would much rather my child have a “real, live” classroom teacher, than trust that our local school district would be able to provide competent online courses.

  13. tim-10-ber says:

    Private schools have been using laptops for a few years (yep an extra $2000 every four years but…). The kids turn in papers via turnitin (or other similar sites) which also checks for plagerism. Textbooks are CDs for the most part or powerpoint presentations. Those that are tech savy (these are tablet notebooks) know how to organize their notes, projects, papers, etc and retrive them for studying.

    yes, there are emails sent during class time but…the computer is used to supplement what the teacher does…they do not in this case boost learning nor are they intended to do so. But my sons are very tech savy and ready for college. Heck, I believe my sons’ high school is more technologically advanced than my older son’s college. Strange…

    I have long wanted webinars or on line classes to balance out the huge inequities in my city for AP or IB offerings. Lack of transportation to the academic magnet or arts magnets eliminates these options for many well deserving kids in my city. Same for the open enrollments schools – no transportation no attendance. This means those children stuck in the default er zoned schools lose due to lack of opportunities.

  14. (Parent 2): “The degree of parental cheating possible with online courses would be staggering. At present, for-profit companies with every reason in the world to confirm the identities of their users can’t create a foolproof system–think of Facebook, Myspace, etc. I doubt that public education will be able to come up with a system to guarantee that Little Johnnie’s the person pushing the buttons on the home computer. Enough parents sign out their kids for shopping and sports events for my to doubt that online education will work on a large scale. Motivated students can learn from a book, at far less cost.”

    Home-based, self-paced instruction through books is cheaper than either attendance at a brick-and-mortar school or online courses conducted in realtime.

    I do not see “online” and “books” as mutually exclusive. Online courses do not have to operate in realtime. They could simply specify the syllabus and offer sample exams (self-test). The fool-proof system for exam-for-credit is to have students appear in person, before some licensed examiner (Sylval Learning Centers, the University of Phoenix, Underwriters Labs, The Kumon Institute). Let independent corporations compete for the proctoring fee. Let competition between Sylvan Learning Centers, the Kumon Institute, and the University of Phoenix drive the cost of a high school diploma or a college degree down to the cost of books and of grading exams.

    It’s a dream, of course. In the US, school has become an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded construction and supply contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination.

  15. Tom West says:

    I’ll admit to being deeply suspicious of distance learning. The idea of taking the best resources (filmed lectures, etc) and presenting them for the kids seems like it *should* work, but based on my experience, it simply doesn’t work in practice (and it breaks my heart that it doesn’t).

    My theory is that unless innately self disciplined, the average student won’t put in effort to learn if he or she doesn’t see the educator putting in effort to teach. I think its why most of us learned more in school from a poorly prepared teacher than from an excellent film.

    (I still get slaughtered playing chess against a computer. For the life of me, I cannot sustain the effort to play well when I can’t see my opponent making his effort.)

  16. greifer says:

    Culture matters.

    Why do people in college bother to show up to class?

    Attendance isn’t taken; their final grade doesn’t depend on it; even a final grade is mostly meaningless unless you’re sole desire is to get into medical school. If all you want is a bachelor’s because you want a job, or you like some subject, or you just want to spend more time drinking and drugging, attendance matters little. In fact, learning at all matters little.

    People do it because their peers do it. And as long as they are in a subculture in college where their peers go to class, study in the evenings, and take school seriously, then they will too. Transfer them to some subculture that doesn’t take those things seriously, and they will stop going to class and doing their homework.

    There’s precious little to enforce culture in distance learning.

    Using distance learning when you’re a child whose culture is defined by your parents is one thing; using it in other rareified environments like as an enlisted person in the military is another place where it can work. But most high school or college students can’t make virtual or distance learning work unless all of their peers around them can make it work for them too, and they create a solid enough subculture that they all artificially buy into the idea that this moment of school matters right now. Pop that bubble of common delusion and it’s over.

  17. Margo/Mom says:

    Mia–of course there are online “supplements” or helps via You-Tube and lots of other sources. What I was dreaming of, however, was something far more individualized–Mrs. Jones explaning the multiplication algorithm to the class, for instance. Or the way that Mr. Smith wanted them to do factoring. Or, suppose that it could be posted to a parents “user group” that could post questions and answer them. They could network with each other about how they were working on math at home, explain things that they don’t get, give each other heads up regarding some of the things that their kids forgot the tell them about. The kind of network that might have existed once in some dreamworld version of over the back fence conversations.

    Providing such a network online has benefits for the school, as well. Amazon and software companies sponsor these kinds of groups, not only because it provides low-cost support to users, but also because it provides a rich source on information about what’s going on with their product and customers. If customers have discovered a new use, for instance (think Avon Skin-So-Soft used as bug repellant), or if something is routinely tripping them up (nobody can figure out how to program the time on the DVD player), this is something a company wants to know. A school would not doubt be interested if most parents thought that 1/3 is bigger than 1/2, or couldn’t remember what a real number is, or if they are all using Hooked on Phonics at home.

    allen asked about a timeline. Christensen (Disrupting Class) offers one–and it appears to have some science behind it–based on past trajectories of disruptive innovation. I don’t know if they apply well to the realm of education. But–the parts that are currently happening seem to fit well. Online distance education is currently readily available at the post-secondary level–reaching an audience who most likely were not being served by brick and mortar institutions. These are coming into being just as “Executive” programs were coming into being when I got my Masters. The local state university was an impossible fit for a single working parent–classes at impossible times, parking a problem. An executive program (actually operated by a brick and mortar university in another state) offered week end classes at an accessible location, telephone access to a trained librarian with internet access (before everyone had it) and data-bases of journals, local locations of hard-copy access, and a by-mail library system. These things are now commonplace. So are online universities offering asynchronous classes supported by lots of online library and research resources and annual “residency” face to face requirements. Perhaps not for everyone–requires a certain amount of self-starting ability (but so does showing up for class regularly and turning in papers). Interestingly, the local community colleges have added online versions of many classes–picked up in popularity when gas prices were over $4/gallon.

    This doesn’t pick up and move as-is to elementary or secondary school. I don’t envision lots of at-home online courses for eight year olds. But, imagine if every mathematics lesson had a teacher introduction, a computer module that assessed students as they completed exercises, provided additional help to those who weren’t quite getting it, and the ability to move on when ready. We already have the ability to grade essays on computer. I have tried some, and while they don’t have an ability to say things like “I liked the way you said that, or this was an interesting word choice, or I wasn’t sure that I understood what you were saying here,” they do provide immediate feedback. If computers were used to provide structure (grammar, syntax) support for writing, would teachers have more time to spend on the more audience specific aspects? Certainly a computer could provide support like the lost art of diagramming sentences to those who think in ways that are helped by that kind of thing.

    LS and parent2 exemplify the wide range of technology use in schools today. Parent2 is much more like what I have seen in my kids schools. Every classroom (almost) has the requisite four computers (in the back of the room). They are used mostly for internet searches. Use for the kind of “back office” things suggested is all over the map. Some functions (submitting grades) is supported system-wide. The district provides email, but as far as I can tell, doesn’t require teachers to use it. Many use home email or free email accounts out of some belief that this protects their privacy (the union advises use of home computers to log-in to annual teacher surveys because otherwise they could be “monitored”). Teacher email addresses are shared (or not) with parents non-systematically, based on individual teacher preference. Some buildings post homework on their websites, most do not. Some individual teachers have accounts with websites that parents or students can log into to see grades. All completely non-standardized, not publicized, not supported.

    The district does use online “credit recovery” for students who have failed classes (that is, they have already met the state required amount of classroom time, just didn’t pass). These are currently pretty static, online workbooks. Allegedly they are “mastery” based–that is, you have to pass a test before you move on. Yes, they are prone to cheating, of a sort–it is possible to write down some key answers (to pre-tests, usually) that allow students to have handy access to the questions that are going to be asked. There is a lot of room for improvement (and having this option so readily available means that there is not enough focus on understanding why kids are failing courses in the first place)–and doesn’t meet the needs of kids who learn best in ways other than “read and answer questions.” But–it is a foot in the door. These things are being used heavily in “drop-out recovery” programs–a population that has never been well-served in public education. Odds are, they will get better.

    But–it seems as though the key is to be able to look at education differently. It isn’t “at home with the computer vs in school with a teacher.” It could be both, or neither.

  18. Tracy W says:

    Grefier – another answer to your question was, for me at least:
    1. I know I like to procrastinate.
    2. I really really like to procrastinate when it comes to learning something difficult like mathematics.
    3. Getting myself to lectures, even at 9am and at age 18, was easier than making myself study something hard like mathematics for an hour at a time.
    4. If I attend lectures then I tend to pay at least some attention in them. I’m far less likely to pick up a novel or break to make myself a cup of tea or something.
    5. So I learnt more mathematics, or other hard stuff, if I attended lectures than if I didn’t.

    Lectures provide that outside support. Not so much because of peer culture, but because of my own personal faults and vague awareness of them.

  19. “My theory is that unless innately self disciplined, the average student won’t put in effort to learn if he or she doesn’t see the educator putting in effort to teach.

    On the other hand, the average student doesn’t have much need to learn self discipline. I doubt the average student has much appreciation for the amount of effort involved in teaching, although I’m sure they’re quick to pick up on the reverse.